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The Bilingual Interface Project: The relationship between first language development and second language acquisition as students begin learning English in the context of schooling

Penny McKay
School of Language and Literacy Education
Queensland University of Technology

The Bilingual Interface project[1] examined the relationship between ESL learners' first language development and their second language acquisition in school (a) through a review of international literature in the area (b) through surveys of and interviews with parents, teachers and bilingual aides (c) through a study of the effect of language distance in English attainment, and (d) through case studies of three groups of primary school ESL learners in three States (including one group of Aboriginal learners in a bush setting in the Northern Territory)[2].

The Bilingual Interface project investigated the various influences on the success in school and in English of ESL learners in Australian schools. The term bilingual interface is used in the broadest sense to refer to the enriching and enabling knowledge, skills and experiences that ESL learners bring to their learning at school, and to the coming together of these with their experiences at school. The nature of the bilingual interface will impact on their lives as students and on their language and literacy development in English. Literacy is interwoven with identity, home language and wider social aspiration and it is the management of the bilingual interface, as a major impact on ESL students' successful literacy development, which was investigated in the project.


Fifteen percent of all children in Australia (20% in Victoria; almost 25% in the Northern Territory) are from language backgrounds other than English (Kipp, Clyne & Pauwels, 1995). Masters and Forster (1996) found that overall, students from a language background other than English on average have lower English literacy levels than students from English speaking backgrounds. Cahill (1996) has reported similar difficulties for ESL learners. The work of the Bilingual Interface project is therefore directly relevant to the education and literacy development of a large percentage of the students who are targeted in the Literacy Plan.

Whilst this paper is written to guide the reader towards the implications of the Bilingual Interface project for the National Literacy Plan (DEETYA, 1998), an important consideration, in the context of the ESL learner in school, is whether ESL and literacy are equivalent. The teaching of English as a Second Language involves much more than the teaching of literacy. Even taking a wider definition of literacy as including speaking and listening, and critical thinking, ESL students are:

adding competence in an additional culture as well as an additional language. Their success is much more than linguistic. It deepens and widens the sense of Australianess, and the actual nature of the cultural compact that forms 'Australia'. This learning cannot be collapsed into things it is not. ESL requires its own space, draws on distinctive practices, insights, research and teaching methods and means different things from the categories under which it has been located: literacy, disadvantage, migrants. (Lo Bianco, 1998, p. 7)
The Literacy Plan recognises the need for all students to reach strong levels of literacy. In order to enable students to reach this, educators need a body of knowledge about ESL learners and about what are the enabling factors which ensure that ESL learners, along with English mother-tongue students, reach the expected and required strengths in English literacy.

The Bilingual Interface project provides those involved in implementing the Literacy Plan with an Australian but also an international reference document on:

This information is vitally important for those involved in making decisions regarding professional development, research directions and program delivery in relation to the Literacy Plan. Since the fundamental characteristic of good teaching is an understanding of how children learn (Bennett, 1998), and since a major aim for the Literacy Plan is equity and attainment of strong levels of literacy for all, the information and knowledge that we have about ESL learners in our schools, as set out in the Bilingual Interface Project, is difficult to ignore.

Whilst research has shown that ESL learners are likely to make up a significant proportion of students who are to be targeted in literacy intervention in the Literacy Plan, the Literacy Benchmarks do not to recognise the different pathways and therefore different assessment requirements of ESL learners. The Benchmarks presuppose that all learners are proficient speakers of English, yet this is not the case. ESL learners embark on a different pathway immediately they begin to combine their first language and their cultural and background knowledge with English language and literacy. A large cohort of students born in Australia begin school with little or no English. It is well researched internationally and research evidence is emerging in Australia (for example, through the Bilingual Interface project) that these students take up to seven years to reach age-appropriate levels of academic English literacy. Aboriginal children, for various reasons of context and culture, take even longer.

The Literacy Benchmarks as they are currently written will provide educators with important information about where additional resources should be targeted to boost literacy development. Because they will be likely to label many ESL students as failures, they may stimulate a feeling of failure amongst ESL students and their parents, even though their second language progress may be good. They may encourage teachers to 'teach towards the benchmarks' when this is an inappropriate target for students as they successfully move along a second language learning pathway. Writers since the Bilingual Interface Project have expanded on the discriminatory features and consequences of the Literacy Benchmarks for ESL learners (Lo Bianco, 1998; McKay, 1998a, 1998b). Certainly some ESL learners will fall behind the expected ESL pathways, and appropriate ESL measures are needed to ensure these students' progress (see McKay 1998c).

Lack of attention to what is known about second language and literacy development in the use of the current Benchmarks may:

The nature of this impact will vary according to the extent of the use of the Literacy Benchmarks for accountability and funding purposes. The nature of the impact on individual ESL learners will depend on a range of factors, including their level of ability in spoken English, the degree of distance of their language and culture from English, their degree of literacy in their first language and so on (see Davies et al., 1997).

Despite these concerns about the nature of the Literacy Benchmarks, there is, nevertheless, encouragement in that the following points (gathered from Australian-based projects such as the Bilingual Interface Project) are recognised as informing the literacy plan (DEETYA, 1998):


Professional development was a key recommendation in the Bilingual Interface project, mirroring the recommendations of other Children's Literacy National Programme (CLP) projects[4]. There were very clear findings regarding the need for professional development for mainstream teachers on how to meet the needs of ESL learners in their classes. Teachers in the four-state survey (Zammit, 1997) found that many teachers knew themselves that they needed more professional development in this area. The Northern Territory case study indicated a very clear lack of confidence in meeting Aboriginal students' English language learning needs, and the Queensland case study showed weaknesses in teaching strategies where more targeted strategies would have improved the ESL learners' chances for successful literacy development.

Because of the Federal Government's decision to use Literacy Benchmarks based on mother-tongue English speakers' progress, knowledge of ESL learners' language and literacy pathways and the influences on progress may dissipate without a concerted effort to raise awareness and understandings amongst all teachers. That is, it is not possible to use the Literacy Benchmarks (and the accompanying professional elaborations, which are also English mother-tongue referenced) as a professional development tool alone, without disadvantaging ESL learners.

The Bilingual Interface project points to areas in which professional development should be directed, and the areas of knowledge which should be shared by all educators (as broadly listed above). Teachers of indigenous learners are in clear need of professional development in these areas, as are bilingual aides. Since most classes in Australia contain ESL learners, mainstream teachers need professional development to gain knowledge and understanding in each of the areas listed.[5]

The main import of the Bilingual Interface project is that all professional development activities undertaken through the Literacy Plan should integrate ESL perspectives, and that in some areas, such as those schools in which Aboriginal students study, learning English as a Second Language, as a 'Foreign' Language or as a Second Dialect, there should be attention to the development of the specific knowledge, skills and understanding needed for this context and for these learners.

Finally, the ongoing professional development of ESL specialists who are seen to play a critical role in the language and literacy development of ESL learners (both in direct teaching and in cooperative teaching with mainstream teachers) was considered in the Bilingual Interface project to be a major area of need.


The Bilingual Interface project suggested a number of directions for further research, and further research priorities have arisen since from the introduction of the Literacy Plan.

A range of strategies was suggested in the Bilingual Interface project to investigate further the teaching of Aboriginal learners, including the use of Aboriginal oral language (Kriol, Aboriginal English) as a transfer strategy to Standard Australian English in the early stages of schooling. The effect of literacy in Standard Aboriginal English, and the effect of code switching on literacy development in English needs to be examined in Aboriginal contexts.

Further study should be undertaken to assess and develop the effectiveness of programs to build on the bilingual interface, including mainstream classes in all curriculum areas, and bilingual education programs (in their various forms). This area of study should include more specific investigations of the bilingual interface, for example, the role of first language literacy in second language literacy development at various proficiency levels in both languages. The ways in which bilingual support can facilitate cognitive learning processes should be investigated in a range of learning contexts, with a view to providing models of good practice.

The ways in which discourse practices are influenced by differences in classroom organisation should be investigated, again with a view to providing models of good practice. Longitudinal case studies of ESL learners from a range of backgrounds developing second language literacy in English in a range of Australian contexts need to be undertaken, to investigate the factors which influence successful language and literacy development. A follow-up study after the Bilingual Interface project Queensland Case Study (McKay, 1998c) indicates that whilst some case study students have reached age-appropriate academic proficiency in Year 8, others (those in a weaker progress group in Year 6) are still insecure in their academic English language ability after seven years in the Australian school system.

Particularly, the influence of assessment practices in the context of the Literacy Benchmarks on professional understandings and on the language and literacy development of ESL learners need to be monitored closely. This type of research will need to take cognisance of a range of variables including the first language and literacy development of the student, the degree of ESL-informed professional development for the teachers and the degree to which the Benchmarks are used to inform teaching.

A deepe r understanding of second language proficiency in the context of schooling is needed. ESL learners take up to seven years to develop age-appropriate abilities in this area. Studies into the validity of the ESL Scales/ESL Bandscales need to be done (see, for example, Butler & Stevens, 1997) to ensure that these ESL reference materials continue to provide the latest and best information about ESL language and literacy growth to teachers. Observational studies of ESL learners as they grow in language and literacy in our classrooms should be undertaken for educators to gain closer understandings of second language academic proficiency and its long path towards age-appropriate levels.

Importantly, since ESL learners are members of the population of almost every Australian school, all research into literacy in relation to the Literacy Plan (and beyond) should consider second language and literacy perspectives. That is, no research is complete without recognition that the bilingual interface will be an influencing factor in the progress of many students.


A central message from the Bilingual Interface project and from other writers (for example, Lo Bianco, 1998) to those implementing the Literacy Plan is that, in the language and literacy development of ESL learners, it needs to be understood by all that: As Lo Bianco (1998) says:
... to put it more technically... ESL learning cannot be left entirely to incidental, indirect, inductive or implicit acquisitional processes. Nor is there some natural or inevitable developmental progression such that targeted intervention ... will be sufficient to activate a subsequent automatic learning process. A sort of kick-start ESL. This is because ESL involves expert intervention at all stages of learning, as the student progresses (through individual pathways) from non English speaking-status towards full participation in learning. (p. 1)
Finally, whilst the Literacy Plan appears to recognise these key points (DEETYA, 1998), the Literacy Benchmarks appear not to do so. There is a strong possibility that this will disadvantage some ESL learners in their progress towards literacy.


Bennett, B. (1998). Teaching on the edge of chaos: The need for instructional literacy. Plenary paper presented at ALEA & AATE Conference, Canberra, 5-7 July 1998.

Butler, F.A. & Stevens, R. (1997). Validation plan for the second language proficiency descriptors for public high schools, colleges, and universities in California. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Evaluation, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California.

Cahill, D. (1996). Immigration and schooling in the 1990s. Canberra: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

Davies, A., Grove, E. & Wilkes, M. (1997). Review of literature on acquiring literacy in a second language. In P. McKay, A. Davies, B. Devlin, J. Clayton, R. Oliver & S. Zammit. The Bilingual Interface Project Report. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_bilingual.html

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Kipp, S., Clyne, M. & Pauwels, A. (1995). Immigration and Australia's language resources. Canberra: AGPS.

Lo Bianco, J. (1998). ESL ... Is it Migrant Literacy?... Is it History? Australian Language Matters, 6(2), 1, 6-7.

Masters, G.N. & Forster, M. (1996). Mapping Literacy Achievement. Canberra: DEETYA.

McKay, P. (1998a). Discriminatory features for ESL Learners in the Literacy Benchmarks. Response to Benchmarks Drafts. QATESOL Newsletter, 1998(1).

McKay, P. (1998b). The Literacy Benchmarks and ESL. In Literacy ESL Broadbanding Benchmarking: Australian Council of TESOL Associations Background Papers, 2, 3-14.

McKay, P. (1998c). Two years later: The interface between L1 and English as students progress to secondary school. Paper presented at 23rd ALAA Conference, Brisbane 30th June - 3rd July.

McKay, P., Davies, A., Devlin, B., Clayton, J., Oliver, R. & Zammit, S. (1997). The Bilingual Interface Project Report. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_bilingual.html

Zammit, S. (1997). English and home background languages in Australian primary schools. In McKay, P., Davies, A., Devlin, B., Clayton, J., Oliver, R. & Zammit, S. The Bilingual Interface Project Report. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_bilingual.html


  1. McKay, P., Davies, A., Devlin, B., Clayton, J., Oliver, R. & Zammit, S. (1997). The Bilingual Interface Project Report. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_bilingual.html

  2. The term ESL learners will be used here for ease of reference. It refers to all those students who come from language backgrounds other than English and are learning English as their second (or subsequent) language. ESL learners will be at different points along the pathway towards age-appropriate levels of English language and literacy, and towards the cultural understandings they need for successful participation in learning at school.

  3. Language and literacy rather than 'literacy' is used here in order to foreground the importance of spoken language and other language and culture-related abilities and understandings which ESL students need.

  4. For a comparison of recommendations across projects, see McKay et al., 1997.

  5. An excellent program 'The ESL in the Mainstream Course' (Department of Education, Training and Employment, South Australia), already being used by systems across Australia, can meet many of these needs for mainstream teachers.

Contact details: Dr Penny McKay
School of Language and Literacy Education
Faculty of Education
Queensland University of Technology
Red Hill, QLD 4509
Phone: 07 3864 3279 Fax: 07 3864 3988
Email: pa.mckay@qut.edu.au

Please cite as: McKay, P. (1999). The Bilingual Interface Project: The relationship between first language development and second language acquisition as students begin learning English in the context of schooling. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 123-132. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/mckay.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 6 Jan 2005. Last revision: 10 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/mckay.html